The Douglas High School softball team enjoyed a dream run through the regional playoffs after a breakout regular season this spring.
The Lady Tigers advanced to the regional title game after upending defending regional champion Damonte Ranch before falling short against Reed.
That was made all the more impressive by the fact that they did it — all of it — without the help of arguably their best player over the previous two seasons, Aaliyah Paxson.
Without her help on the field, at least.
The senior Paxson settled into the role of player-coach for the young Douglas squad after her high school career came to an abrupt end in April with an early-season hip surgery.
“It was really tough when it happened,” Paxson said. “This sport has been my life. I just love it so much, and being injured was a setback. It was a struggle.
“But I just kept going out to the field, trying to focus on the positives every day. I started to see my role as more of a volunteer coach with this year’s team. Anyone that needed help, I’d try to give them tips or advice. I felt like that was the best way I could contribute.”
The effort didn’t go unnoticed.
“She was extremely valuable to the program for four years,” Douglas coach Andy Mitchell. “She was just that true example of a team player. She’s a really hard worker, a great leader and she pushes herself as strong as possible.
“With her being hurt, she obviously couldn’t be out there, but she was still there cheering her teammates on, still out there every day on crutches or whatever else. She brought that experience and presence to the team that the other players could turn to.”
Paxson had been a two-time all-league honoree, earning first-team All-Northern 4A honors last season.
She batted over .400 as a sophomore and was coming into this season with 20 career RBIs.
Mitchell was looking for Paxson to anchor either the middle infield or the outfield this season.
She tore the labral tissue, which coats the socket joint of the hip, during the preseason. She attempted to play in several games, even scoring a pair of runs, but had to shut down for the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery.
“They went in and repaired it and cleaned it up,” she said. “They ended up having to take some bone spurs off of it and they had to remove a cyst, but they got it all.”
That left her on a rehab schedule that could have her back on the field as early as next month as she prepares to join the University of Hawaii softball team next year.
“That was pretty cool how it all ended up coming together,” she said. “Playing softball, it can be difficult to get your name out there when you aren’t sure what to do.
“I started really trying after my junior season, just sending out letters and my highlight video.”
Paxson’s dream was to play at the Division I level in college, but the response she kept getting was that everyone’s roster was already full.
“They all wished me luck, but the answer kept coming back the same,” Paxson said.
She kept at it, though, and wound up attending a hitting camp on the Hawaii campus in August.
She was able to show off her speed while roving after fly balls during batting practice and then put on a show at the plate.
In her first turn at bat, she clubbed a ball over the fence from the right side of the plate, and then turned around and did the same from the left side.
Word about the performance spread quickly.
“I had a meeting with the coach that week and the first thing he said when he walked in was that he’d heard about my two home runs,” Paxson said. “It was really cool. We sat with him and talked for a while and he said I had a spot on the team if I wanted it.”
So Paxson wound up accepting the invite to be a preferred walk on starting next season and will leave for Hawaii in August.
“I’m on the roster and everything,” she said. “They just didn’t have any scholarship money left. He said if he had one, he’d give it to me and that if I kept working, I’d have a good chance for one in the future.”
Hawaii advanced to the regional final round of the NCAA Tournament this season and finished the year ranked as high as No. 20 nationally.
Paxson said she wants to study psychology and neuroscience, possibly one day working on a chemical that would naturally defeat brain tumors. She said she’d also have an interest in working as a criminal profiling expert.
For now, though, her focus has turned to getting back on the field.
“I’ve worked very hard, and I’m going to keep working hard,” she said. “When I get back out there, it’ll be so much more gratification. I’ll just appreciate playing more. You never know how much something really means to you until it gets taken away. This has been an obstacle, but it has driven me that much harder to get better.”